A Break from Tradition: Meet the Artists

Closeup of dancers in 'Ballet at the Alhambra' by Spencer Gore

Written by Curator of Art Collections, Dr Hannah Lyons, this blog introduces the key themes and artists included in this free exhibition, which highlights a selection of modern drawings from the University of Reading Art Collection.

Celebrating a small group of drawings made in England or France in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the exhibition examines the ways artists began to respond to unprecedented social, economic and political changes through the medium of drawing. It looks at the ways in which they challenged the traditional artistic practices of the nineteenth century, and, in an attempt to free themselves from these constraints, create something new.

By focusing on works on paper, this exhibition reveals how these artists were able to take this transportable medium out into the city streets, cafes, music halls and other public spaces, to create sketches of this new, modern world. Their drawings – made with pencil, ink, pastel or chalk – were not only used as a preliminary tools to create paintings, but became independent works of art in their own right.

James McNeill Whistler

Portrait of the upper half of Ronald Murrary Phillip. He has his head bent and is looking down
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Fellow Traveller (Study of Ronald Murray Phillip), UAC/10519

The exhibition opens with a pen and brown ink portrait sketch by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855 and was determined to establish a reputation as an artist. Here he uses a series of scratched lines and a scatter of dots to rapidly create a portrait of his brother-in-law, Ronald Murray Philip.

Gwen John

Sketchy study of a standing female nude
Gwen John, Standing female nude, UAC/10567

In this lightly drawn work, Gwen John uses graphite to create a sensual study focusing on the model’s torso. John studied at the pioneering Slade School of Art in London, where she was permitted to study from the female nude. The exhibition looks at her career at the end of the nineteenth century, when she travelled to Paris and enrolled at James McNeill Whistler’s art school, the Académie Carmen.

Walter Sickert

Half portrait of a woman singing with outstretched arms
Walter Richard Sickert, Café Chanteuse (Woman singing), c.1904, UAC/10531

The exhibition features several drawings by Walter Sickert, one of the most successful but controversial artists of this period. In this pencil drawing, Sickert captures a female performer mid-song, open-mouthed and arms outstretched. In the exhibition, we see how Sickert spent his summers exploring the fashionable French sea-side resort of Dieppe, with sketchbook in hand.

Spencer Frederick Gore

Two ballet dancers dancing. One wearing an orange dress and the other wearing a green outfit
Spencer Frederick Gore, Ballet at the Alhambra, UAC/10566

In 1911, Spencer Gore co-founded ‘The Camden Town Group’ of artists with Walter Sickert. In the exhibition, we have included this chalk and pastel drawing, made around the time he joined the group. This exhibition reveals how Gore responded to the colour, movement and sound of modern Britain.

Walter Bayes

Woman (Kitty) laying on a bed with her eyes closed. There is a floral pattern on the cover and a coat handing in the background.
Walter Bayes, Kitty on a bed, UAC/10574. © Estate of Walter Bayes

The exhibition also includes a conté crayon drawing by Walter Bayes, another founding member of ‘The Camden Town Group’. Conté crayons were a cost-effective mixture of pastel and crayon, and the exhibition shows how Bayes has used this medium to depict his wife, Katherine Teller, in a series of multi-directional lines, scribbles and swirls.

All the works of art discussed in this blog post are on display in the Staircase Hall, which is open from 23 November 2023 – 30 September 2024.

You can also view them in our free online exhibition.

Works on paper from the University of Reading Art collection, including works by Walter Sickert and other artists included in this show, are available to view by appointment in our Art Study Room.

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